Friday, April 8, 2011

Wherein I Learn Just How Many Nails Can Fit Into One Coffin

Yesterday I had the privilege of seeing Sam Harris debate William Lane Craig on the topic of morality. However, I was a bit disappointed with both of them. Craig not only defined morality as whatever the hell God says regardless of the consequences, but he made some really obvious dodges and even repeated everyone's favorite line, the argument from ignorance: “I can't think of a way…” He also accused Harris of building an argument on wordplay, the most ironic thing I've ever heard anyone say. On a positive note, however, I got to (very briefly) meet John Loftus and a cute girl named Megan that recommended a book to me.

In his introduction, Dr. Craig (yes, it is a legitimate PhD, albeit in theology, which, to me, is about as much of an accomplishment as being a level-20 druid or something) outlined the secular basis for morality, as atheists like Harris, Carrier, and I would argue, and did so surprisingly well. In fact, I agreed with most of what he said in his introduction, and couldn't really figure out what his objection was. He said that moral intuition arises as a result of being large-brained, social mammals. It evolved as a way of governing behavior in such a way as to increase the well-being and happiness (thus, the survivability) of our species, collectively. Beyond that, it's (not so) simply a matter of Game Theory (I don't know if Harris mentions Game Theory in The Moral Landscape, because I haven't gotten around to reading it yet, but I think it is absolutely essential to understanding morality). The goal is maximizing human well-being and happiness (to the extent that they can be quantified, and by extension, all other living things, to a lesser degree, based on their ability to suffer). We also feel morally inclined toward those that are most closely related to us more than those who are more distant relatives, which is perfectly consistent with this model (because genes are selfish).

So essentially, Craig laid out the basis for secular morality, and then said that there isn't one. He asked, almost in so many words, “what's so good about human well-being and happiness?” His objection seemed to be that in a secular view, morality itself is amoral and that “deeper meaning is illusory.” What deeper meaning? Why is that necessary? How can morality itself be moral? To use Harris' health analogy, it's as if Craig was asking what's desirable about health, or what's healthy about health itself. The question is meaningless. So his argument relied on assumptions he was apparently unaware of, as well as a serious lack of clear definitions.

In defense of Divine Command, Craig then equated goodness with God's will, and compared God to a police officer, in that he was a “competent authority,” which is wrong for a number of reasons. First of all, how is he judging God to be competent, just, or good? Secondly, cops can be corrupt. There can be immoral laws. I suppose his argument relies on the assumption that God is perfectly intelligent and sane, which is a huge leap, but even accepting that, what end do his declarations of moral obligation serve? Craig never once even attempted to explain what determined or justified God's “good” nature, which was the whole point of the debate. As with any cosmological argument, all he did was add a step.

Dr. Harris called him out on his poor attempt to side-step the Euthyphro Dilemma towards the end, and began to address Craig's arguments more directly, after spending the first half re-hashing some of his favorite material and sort of going off on tangents. That's fine, because all theological arguments overlap, so shifting topics is inevitable, and he's not going to write 100% new material each time he debates someone or gives a lecture, but I was expecting some more biting and direct counter-attacks, a la Matt Dillahunty or Hitch.

The audience stepped up and asked some great questions, however. Harris dealt with the theists' questions deftly and satisfyingly, but whenever a question was directed at Craig, he usually either dismissed it or failed so horribly the audience actually laughed at him. One girl sitting two rows in front of me asked, since Craig had earlier compared our intuitive knowledge of morality to our intuitive understanding of light, if he was implying, because we have replaced supernatural explanations for light with the real, natural explanations, that the same would happen with morality. Her question also implied a second point - that light exists objectively, and it doesn't need a divine basis, just like morality. This is the point at which he said that he believed morals must come from God because he can't think of another way!

At one point, Craig also said “atheism doesn't offer a basis of morality.” I almost stood up and shouted “neither does not believing in unicorns!” but resisted. Time ran out before I got a chance to ask my questions, but I think Craig was sufficiently trounced. I still felt like I had to talk about it here, though.

I think the best objection to Divine Command Theory, however, is to ask whether any moral behavior, as supposedly determined by God, ever increases suffering and decreases human well-being and happiness, or whether any action can be considered immoral that increases well-being and happiness and reduces suffering. EVEN IF you accept Divine Command because Might Makes Right, the threat of Hell and the opportunity of Heaven are still merely appeals to happiness and suffering. It's inescapable. Morality cannot depend on any gods.

One of the main points of this debate surrounds the difference between subjectivity and objectivity, which I have a problem with. My own moral opinions are shaped by a combination of my knowledge (of the consequences of my actions, primarily) and my innate desires instilled in me (us) by natural selection. And the fact that those desires exist in me (to live, to be healthy and to find happiness, etc) is amoral, because it is half of the foundation on which morality is based! They cannot be justified, only explained. They are neither good nor bad, because that judgment depends on those innate desires already being there. My desire to live and be happy + an understanding of the consequences of my actions + Game Theory --> moral obligations. Anyway, the feeling of happiness itself is subjective, but whether or not I am healthy and happy etc. is objectively verifiable, so subjectivity doesn't enter into it. For instance, if I am sitting in a relaxed position, smiling, talking to friends, and laughing, you and everyone else can observe these behaviors and determine that I am happy. If I look down at my feet, frown, and sigh heavily, you will then determine that I am upset. And so on. You can even be wrong about my mood, interpreting the evidence incorrectly. If I say I am happy, or I like the sweater my grandma knitted me for Christmas, there is an underlying truth that only I know about (that I am not happy, or that I like the sweater), only because I am disguising the evidence. A more accurate assessment can be made later if I give evidence revealing my true feelings. Furthermore, it is theoretically possible to observe my brain state with something like an fMRI and determine my mood more directly. I can't lie about that. So assessing the evidence can tell you whether your actions affect me positively or negatively, to varying degrees of certainty. 100% certainty is never possible in science, so we can't expect it in this case either. So in this way, we have an objective basis for morality. Its effectiveness depends on creativity, how accurately we can predict the consequences of our actions for other people and ourselves, and how well we can assess whether those consequences are conducive or detrimental to human well-being and happiness as we are able to observe evidence of it. 

I have like three pages of notes from the debate, but I think I've said all I need to say on the subject.

Take care, sir.

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